The Importance of Play

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve been reading way too many child-rearing books recently. It’s comes with the territory of being a new mom and wanting to give your child every advantage in life. With all the advice I’ve read, one that strikes me as particularly solid is to foster your child’s creativity and problem-solving skills through free play. No one tells you what to do. You simply use your imagination and the environment around you as inspiration. There are no ribbons to be earned, no goal set at the end of the day. Just have fun.

I thrived on free play during my own childhood. I grew up in a rural area with a large back yard, plenty of toys, and enough siblings to start a basketball team. I spent time outside – pretending to run a restaurant, re-enacting my favorite cartoon scenes, and mucking around in the dirt. I spent time inside – constructing elaborate societies with colorful ponies, tracing the same pictures over and over onto lined paper, and trying to beat the high scores off pointless video games. The memories blur together into one happy kaleidoscope.

When I became a teenager, the activities changed, but the general attitude toward play didn’t. As my peers stopped getting allowances and starting finding part-time jobs, I continued to have ample free time. I wrote cheesy poems, tinkered with my electronic keyboard, and talked comic books with other teens on chat boards. I often asked my parents why they weren’t trying to instill a “sense of responsibility” by making me do more adult things. (I was actually a little jealous of those kids with jobs, since I wasn’t allowed to have one. It seemed cool to have more fiscal control of your life.) My parents told me my only job was being a student. Beyond that, a person only gets to be a kid once, so I should enjoy it while it lasted.

In other words, they told me kids should play.

Fast forward to today, and I am no longer jealous that I didn’t work at a fast food restaurant when I was 16. Sure, I “wasted” a bunch of time playing video games, something many might assume was detrimental to my overall character. But the funny thing is, even the time I used to play video games translated into skills I would use as an adult. Elaborate video game stories fueled the first novella I ever wrote. I made many, many friends in high school through the “nerd connection.” I loved games so much that I devoted much of my college career to finding a job in the industry. Now I have business experience in games, and still do freelance work in that field from time to time.

It makes me wonder about the importance of play. Kids obviously need their play time, a time away from helicopter parents to discover worlds of their own. But I think adults could use a little more play time too. A time where you don’t care if you get anything done, a time to try new things or rediscover something you’ve forgotten you loved. You can enjoy it solo or take your friends and family along for the ride. Let it be guilt-free and playful. And if something great comes out of it, like a job skill, it’s just a bonus, but never the goal.

For anyone worried that playing might make adults irresponsible, just remember my parents’ parameters (slightly modified) – You have core obligations, probably work and a family. Beyond that, a person only gets one lifetime on this earth. Enjoy it while it lasts.

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